Virologist under investigation for misleading on ‘lab leak theory’ briefed the intel community

Print Email Share Tweet LinkedIn WhatsApp Reddit Telegram
Photo credit: Unsplash

A virologist under investigation by Congress for allegedly misleading the public about the plausibility of a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2 may have also misled the intelligence community.

Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Institute, assured officials across government agencies that SARS-CoV-2 was natural in a briefing organized by the State Department’s intelligence analysts in early 2020, according to a new email obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Since January 2020, Andersen has been at the forefront of efforts to stigmatize the idea of a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2 as a conspiracy theory.

The briefing’s conclusions drew from an influential letter in Nature Medicine called “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”. Andersen was the lead author.

The letter had an enormous impact in both the scientific community and popular press. It spurred hundreds of headlines declaring the idea of an artificial virus emerging from the lab complex Wuhan implausible, even a conspiracy theory.

The revelation that Andersen advised the intelligence community at a critical moment on the origins of COVID-19 comes on the heels of an Office of the Director of National Intelligence summary of certain intelligence related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a coronavirus lab at the pandemic’s epicenter.

Andersen sparked public outrage in 2021 when emails obtained by news organizations showed he had privately expressed alarm that a segment of the SARS-CoV-2 genome may have been engineered. The emails also uncovered an emergency confidential call between Andersen and other virologists who publicly dismissed the lab leak hypothesis and leaders of the National Institutes of Health, which had underwritten cutting edge coronavirus research in Wuhan.

A few days later, Andersen encouraged combatting the “crackpotidea that the virus was engineered to the National Academies and the White House. The White House subsequently wrapped up a cursory effort to outline data necessary to investigate the virus’ origin.

The revelations have driven concerns that the letter amounted to a push to suppress discussion of a scientific hypothesis with explosive implications — that the emerging pandemic may have begun with a lab accident.

The controversy has simmered for years, culminating in a hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee tomorrow at which Andersen is expected to appear.

Andersen will tell the committee that his change in position “was not based on a single piece of evidence, but a combination of many factors, including additional data, analyses, learning more about coronaviruses, and discussions with colleagues and collaborators,” according to his prepared testimony.

Now, new evidence indicates Andersen may have similarly briefed intelligence analysts and influenced the State Department.

In an “analytic exchange” organized by the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR), officials across U.S. agencies were briefed on the “proximal origin” letter.

The call was described by some participants as a costly diversion from a credible hypothesis at a time when accurate data was most critically needed and the origins evidence was still fresh.

“Officials and experts who could have helped equip their colleagues and the public… understand a novel and grave situation … instead overwhelmingly deflected,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Feith testified to Congress earlier this year.

Feith said the experts stressed the robust biosafety of Wuhan’s labs, though evidence brought to light in subsequent years has undermined that claim.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show a contentious tug-of-war within the State Department over the plausibility of a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, and that Andersen’s briefing discouraged some officials from investigating.

“As I understand it, Dr. Andersen did not see a natural origin for SARS-COV-2 as ‘obvious.’ In fact, I’m told that in a briefing organized by INR earlier this year, he said that several features that had initially raised questions in his mind were subsequently put to rest by more detailed analysis,” said Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford said in a December 2020 email.

Andersen and Ford did not respond to a requests for comment.

Congressional Republicans had previously voiced concerns at the intelligence community’s refusal to share which scientific experts it tapped to advise its investigation into the origins of the most fatal pandemic in a century.

Feith previously testified that he was precluded by Chatham House rules from sharing who participated in the briefing.

The fallout

In April 2020, a few weeks after the briefing, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement declaring it agreed with the “scientific consensus” that SARS-CoV-2 had not been engineered.

It echoed the conclusion of the influential “proximal origin” letter.

The “proximal origin” letter argued that SARS-CoV-2 could not have been made in a laboratory for two main reasons: computer modeling does not predict how well SARS-CoV-2 interacts with human cells, and therefore its binding region could not have been designed, and no published coronavirus could have been used as a backbone, therefore SARS-CoV-2 cannot be lab-made.

Yet the “proximal origin” letter had not established a scientific consensus, even within the intelligence community.

A summary of declassified intelligence released last month stated that “almost all IC agencies assess that SARS-CoV-2 was not genetically engineered,” implying that view was not in fact unanimous. In contrast to “proximal origin,” the ODNI summary also states that not all agencies had ruled out serial passage, a technique for enhancing the infectivity or pathogenicity of a virus in the lab without engineering.

An assessment by Navy Commander Jean-Paul Chretien shows that the arguments in “proximal origin” are “not based on scientific analysis.” Instead, the analysis assumes a specific “intent and methodology for a hypothesized scientist” and also assumes that all coronavirus work has been published.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s own research publications appear to contradict Andersen’s assumptions.

“A long line of research shows that leading coronavirus laboratories do not work as described in the laboratory-origin scenario Anderson et al. consider and dismiss,” the assessment states.

U.S Right to Know obtained the document reported on in this article from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department. All of our reporting and FOIA documents about the origins of Covid-19 and high risk virology are here.

To top